Article 38: Independent Review of Elementary School
Renovation Option and Project Costs
Why do we need an independent assessment of renovation and project costs for our elementary schools?
The proposal of a new, large elementary school building has not garnered the support of a majority of our elementary educators or parents. The School Committee’s January 2016 survey demonstrated a strong preference for maintaining the current K-6 structure, with many respondents specifically indicating support for renovation. Community members, teachers, & parents have expressed many reasons for their preference for renovation, rooted in concerns for the environment, pedagogy, equity, logistics, and, last but not least, cost. Renovation could also include the addition of preschool classrooms to either Wildwood or Fort River, providing the benefits of increased accessibility to preschool, and in a location more convenient to families in the northern part of town, while simultaneously easing the current problem of overcrowding at Crocker Farm.
Article 38 suggests that if all the costs associated with the options for addressing our elementary schools are thoroughly vetted, renovation of both Wildwood and Fort River Elementary Schools will compare favorably to the proposed new, large school and should be given further consideration.
Costs of Proposed Large School Include More Than Just the Building Itself
The cost estimate for the proposed 750 student school has risen from $47-53M in October to ~$65M, at a minimum cost to the Town of ~$31M. However, this figure does not include expenses that will be borne exclusively by the Town, including decommissioning Fort River and renovating Crocker Farm from pre-K/6 to a pre-K/1 facility. Moreover, projected annual operational savings have decreased because there would be two administrations within the proposed large school and higher transportation costs, both monetary and environmental, for additional bus runs to mitigate against increased travel distances and times created by the proposed configuration.
Renovation Cost Analysis is Insufficient and Does Not Permit Comparison
Renovation was described by the school Administration as cost-prohibitive long before estimates were made available to the public. The estimates eventually presented were indeed high, which seemed to shut the door on renovation as a practical option. However, a closer look at the numbers has raised many questions.
Cost estimates for renovation cost have been based solely on a formula that multiplies the building’s total square footage by an assigned cost per square foot. But this methodology is imprecise and may be inflated. First, the total square footage of Wildwood includes large areas that have not been cited as problematic or in need of complete renovation, such as the gym.
Second, the estimates that have been presented are considerably higher thancomparable state projects. The District’s renovation costs were as high as $390/sq ft in October, then revised to $338 in January. In contrast, calculations based on MSBA-funded renovations at elementary and middle schools, and accounting for annual increases to a 2017 start date, produce a mean of $286 and median of $300 per sq ft. Finally, the two cost estimators that have been used in this process produced significantly different figures for what it would cost to bring Wildwood up to code: $19M according to the one cited by the District in its argument against renovation but $14M by the other.This is not to advocate for a simple code upgrade but to point out that total project costs might be significantly less than presented. All of these discrepancies produce a dramatically different picture of total costs, on the order of several million dollars.
The Additional Information Is Necessary for Voters to Assess the Projects
This building process has thus far been approached from the starting premise of “What would the perfect elementary school look like?” and then determining the cost of that ideal. That would be a wonderful approach if the Town had endless resources, no other capital projects, and unequivocal community support, but Amherst is not in that position.
Instead, in a time of tight budgets and many public needs, it is sensible to ask, “What if we approached the elementary school building project with fiscal restraint?” Start with a budget, a reasonable figure the Town can afford, and prioritize the most important issues: air quality, accessibility, noise, and other issues associated with the open classroom design. If we kept the costs per building to ~$24M each, and received MSBA funding for Wildwood at 50%, the total cost to the Town would be ~$36M, a figure close to the Town’s portion of the proposed single, large building—but with the advantages mentioned earlier, including the support of more residents.
Finally, a smaller-scale, renovation-oriented approach allows us to tackle urgent situations. Wildwood’s boiler, given its problems this winter, may need to be replaced before the new school comes online. Concerns about Fort River’s air quality should be assessed and any problems should be addressed immediately, instead of waiting several years for a new building.
Our hope and intention is to provide the Town with a more complete set of information with which it can approach the decisions it faces in the coming months about this and other capital projects. The MSBA Feasibility Study began in the fall of 2014 and concludes 30 months later in 2017 so there is still time to make decisions within that timeframe. We believe that renovation of both Wildwood and Fort River is possible if approached in a different manner and we are asking for a fresh accounting of this option.
Independent reviews of capital projects are useful in resolving concerns over disputed estimated costs and are performed within the existing timeframe of the project. The goals of this study would be to review currently available documents to see if estimates for renovation are accurate, produce an item by item estimate of what it would cost to address the specific problems in the schools, and to see whether there is a better, less expensive design plan that can achieve our stated goals. We believe such a check is more than justified on such an important project.
Numerous requests for detailed renovation costs were made throughout the fall and winter but were never met. Because renovation will not receive further scrutiny within the current process, we ask that the Town provide the means with which to accomplish this before we are called upon to make final decisions for our schools.
Contact: Maria Kopicki, email@example.com, and Laura Quilter, firstname.lastname@example.org